Monday, October 17, 2016

Desirism: Talking Points

I had an opportunity over the weekend to address the question, "How would you describe and defend Desirism in quick and simple terms that would fit into the opening segment of a podcast?"

I began with the assumption that I was given an opening either by being asked about desirism directly, or asked about whether values are objective, whether there is an actual right or wrong, or whether I could defend a moral claim without reference to any type of deity. All of these can be turned into a version of the question, "Are moral values objective?"

I then wrote down some notes:

They start with, "That's a hard question to answer..."

I think a lot of people are caught in a false dichotomy. No matter how I answer the question, a lot of people are going to read things into the answer that aren't there.

If I say that I believe in objective moral value, a lot of people are going to assume that this means that I believe that when matter is organized in particular ways - such as can be described as an "act of charity" for example - that some type of special value property emerges - a type of "goodness" that humans can sense and, when we sense it, we are motivated to create more of it.

I do believe that moral values are objective - but I do not believe any of that stuff.

And if I say that I reject the idea of objective value, a lot of people are going to assume that this means that I hold that values are merely a matter of opinion. To say that slavery or genocide are wrong is to simply say that I don't like doing it and other people don't like doing it - but it is not really wrong. We can make slavery or genocide perfectly good - even admirable institutions - just by liking them.

I do believe that value depends on desire but it is not so simple as saying that simply liking something makes it morally good.

I hold that values are real. However, they exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. But not simple relationships - not in the sense that just liking it makes it morally good. The relationships are more complex - and basically go into answering the question of what we ought to desire, not what we desire in fact.

You cannot explain events in the real world without postulating beliefs and desires. Desires are real. The relationships between desires and states of affairs are real. And the complex relationships that go into asking and answering the question of "what ought we to desire" are real.

I have mentioned this story a few times. When I was 13 years old, I think, I put my hand on a hot metal plate. It wasn't glowing hot, and I did not think it was hot, but it was. Shortly thereafter, I had blisters growing on the palm of my hand - second degree burns.

That HURT!

Pain is real. And the awfulness of pain is real. Anybody who claims that the awfulness of pain is not a part of the real world - does not represent an objective fact - is simply wrong.

One could neither explain or predict the events that occurred after I put my hand on that plate unless one included in that explanation the awfulness of pain.

Our own experiences of pain give us a real-world reason to arrange our environment in such a way so as to reduce the chance that we will be put into a situation of experiencing pain. I have a reason to avoid my pain. You have a reason to avoid your pain. I would bet that almost all of your listeners have a reason to avoid their pain. These reasons exist as objective fact.

One of the ways in which I can reduce the chance of experiencing pain is by motivating others to avoid doing things that would result in my being in pain. You have reason to motivate others to avoid causing you pain, and the same is true of your listeners with respect to their pain.

There are three ways in which we can get people to avoid acting in ways that might cause us pain. The first two are commonly discussed. The third, I argue, does not get the attention it deserves.

(1) Deterrance.

We an offer people rewards if they refrain from doing things that might cause pain, or we can threaten them with retaliation if they do things that might cause pain. We act on their existing desires - promising to fulfill an existing desire, or to thwart an existing desire (fulfill an existing aversion) if they should behave in ways that cause pain.

There are two main problems with this method.

First, we can only punish those who we catch, and we provide no incentive for those who can cause pain without getting caught.

Second, we cannot always punish people even if we catch them. They may be too powerful, or they may have established systems and institutions that put them beyond the reach of those who would punish them.

These people have no incentive to avoid causing pain.

(2) Divine Retribution

Would it not be great if there were an all-knowing divine punisher who knew of every case when a person did things that caused pain and was powerful enough to punish them no matter what?

This would get us around the two problems we encountered above.

However, this method has problems of its own.

The first is that, no such entity exists. The fact that it would be great if something existed does not make it real. It would be great if there were a fountain of youth that would return us - physically - to when we were 25 years old or so. That it would be great does not prove the existence of such an entity.

The second is that we still have the problem of determining what to punish and what not to punish. Religions are invented by humans with limited intelligence and ulterior motives. We have suffered greatly from religions telling us to do things we ought not to do, not to do things we really should be doing, and giving us permission to do things we ought not to do. They then take these fallible human inventions and claim that they are the word of an all-knowing, perfectly benevolent deity. We end up with fundamentally flawed moral systems literally carved in stone.

(3) Molding Desires

Here's the option that does not get the attention it deserves.

One way we can alter the behavior of people is by altering their desires - altering their likes and dislikes.

We can avoid pain by getting people to like to do things that tend not to cause pain to others - that even tend to prevent things that cause pain, and to dislike doing things that tend to cause pain.

How do we do that?

Rewards and punishments, praise and condemnation, acting on the reward centers of the brain, alter the likes and dislikes of individuals.

Consider, for example, the taste of coffee or beer. Coffee and beer taste terrible. Yet, each contains a drug that acts on the reward centers of the brain. One of the effects of these drugs is that they alter our reaction to the taste of coffee and to beer. After a while, they start to taste good (at least for those people who drink coffee and beer - or so I have been told, since I am not a fan of either). I am always told that these are "acquired tastes", and we know how they are acquired.

Morality is an acquired taste.

We reward people who are honest and condemn those who are dishonest as a way of promoting a social "acquired taste" for honesty. We praise those who pay their debts and condemn/punish those who do not pay their debts as a way of developing an "acquired taste" for paying debts.

Once a person has acquired a taste for honesty, for repaying debts, for keeping promises, for acting charitably, and the like, then we can trust that they will act morally even under circumstances where they will not get caught.

We do not need to keep watching over the shoulder of somebody who likes coffee to make sure that he drinks coffee. If he likes it, he will choose to drink it on his own, whenever he has an opportunity to do so and other circumstances permit it (except when he thinks it may do great harm). We do not need to constantly look over the shoulder of a person with an "acquired taste" for honesty - he will be honest when he has an opportunity to do so (except when he thinks it may do great harm).

A person in power - who has acquired a taste for honesty, for charity, for keeping promises, for repaying debts, has a reason to go on being honest, charitable, and trustworthy in the same way that he has a reason to continue to drink coffee or beer or to do any of the other things he has acquired an interest in.

The one difference, of course, between coffee and honesty is that people generally have no reason to reward or praise the person who likes coffee or to condemn or punish the person who dislikes coffee. However, people generally have many and strong reasons to praise and reward those who are honest, and condemn and punish those who are dishonest. This is why drinking coffee is a matter of personal preference, and honesty is a moral virtue.

This is where morality comes from - without God. It comes from the many and strong reasons that people have to promote an acquired taste in certain types of activities - or to form acquired dislikes for activities that are generally harmful to others. We promote these acquired tastes using the tools of reward, praise, punishment, and condemnation. This is why these qualities - praise and reward on the one hand, and punishment and condemnation on the other, are so central to the institution of morality. Morality is concerned with molding desires, and these are the tools for molding desires.

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